December 21st, the first day of winter, Detective Peter O’Brien stood in water and ash and smelled that unmistakable odor as firefighters pried rubble off the bodies of children as the stove used for heating exploded. The old run down wooden frame on Colorado Avenue went up like paper and the flames trapped several children inside.
Janet Saez, the baby sitting grandmother was trying to heat up the apartment while two of the four children were sitting at the kitchen table when the stove just exploded. The grandmother and the two children died instantly. However, the fire slowly made the other two children suffer before taking their lives. O’Brien prayed to God that the smoke killed them first, but that was not the case. The firefighters from the 42nd pulled out a burning little girl and she died as they tried to revive her.
The family that lived on the second floor did not make it out either. The young mother and welfare lifer was on a mattress shielding her two children from the licking flames, but lost the battle. She did all she could to protect her little ones as they just burned like the mid-night oil.
The firefighters moved the body of an eighty year old man who lived on the third floor and died in bed. There were no windows, and poor ventilation. It was almost a guarantee that the smoke killed him before the fire came knocking. The body was bloated and ripe and almost ready to explode as it cooked in its own juices. O’Brien turned away and swallowed a mouthful of dread, and fear.
One of the firefighters removed a crib with a baby still inside burnt to a crisp. The firefighter, Mark Firpi, removed his mask to breath in some cold fresh air, and the wind just crystallized his tears.
Zoraida Saez was out of the house working her third part-time job trying to make ends meet had no idea that her family was gone. Her priorities were her children, but after December 21st those priorities went up in smoke.
O’Brien had crowd control detail, but he allowed anyone who wanted to get a closer visual by. Truth be told, he didn’t have the strength to hold anyone back. Some of the firefighters were slipping on the man made ice skating rink, and the water from the hoses filled the air with a freezing frost. The wind was howling and O’Brien could have sworn on a stack of bibles that he heard the devil’s laughter being carried on each passing blow. That wind was making it very difficult for the firefighters to complete their job as it fanned the flames. It had taken shared participation in creating hell on earth for the dutiful members of the 42nd.
More often than not these were the types of days O’Brien found himself talking seriously about packing it in. The higher pension could never give him back the sorrow he suffered. The anguish he had to hold inside while trying to comfort people when they lost loved ones. In his mind he kept asking himself, how the hell do you comfort a mother like Zoraida Saez, that while she was working over a hot stove, a hot stove was working over her children.
O’Brien also knew that for every life a firefighter saves, doesn’t make up for the many they couldn’t. He wished he had the power to arrest the flames before they could cause more harm, but that was just a ridiculous thought.
O’Brien could still smell the stench of burnt flesh even through the winter breeze as he watched trained firefighters assemble the dead…
© 2014 Frank Atanacio